I just finished reading Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, a political history of the period from 1965 to 1972, which tries to explain how the country traveled in a few years from the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson to the landslide re-election of Richard Nixon. I lived through this period as a highly impressionable teenager. Even though Perlstein is too young to remember these tumultuous times, he does a good job capturing their flavor. His thesis is that Nixon was essentially responsible for dividing the United States into the "red" and "blue" America that we have been living with ever since. In designing the "Southern strategy," in appealing to many Americans' fears of the urban riots and student protests of the period, in creating the term "Silent Majority," and in treating his political opponents as enemies to be crushed by all available legal and illegal means, Nixon did a great deal to polarize politics in this country. In many ways, we are still living in Nixonland, as excessive partisanship and the demonization of opposing views has only gotten worse since the Nixon presidency.
Perlstein's book also reminded me how strong are the forces of backlash. Almost immediately after the triumph of civil rights and Great Society programs like Medicare, the backlash began, prompted in part by the perceived excesses of those movements. Nixon rose to power on that backlash, and managed to stay in power, despite having prolonged an unpopular war, by governing in some ways as a moderate but continuing to play to the country's fears, until he brought himself down by his own abuses of power.
I canvassed and leafletted for the McGovern campaign in 1972, when I was a college freshman, and was proud to have done so. Yet reading this book brought back painful reminders that the Democrats' presidential defeat that year was caused in large part by the Democrats' own fractiousness and infighting. The revolutionary spirit of the times, the protests, the violence, the sex and drugs and rejection of respectable society, was all probably counter-productive politically. All of this chaos frightened the silent majority, and turned them toward a figure who was in many ways more lawless and more violent, and certainly more ruthless, than his political opponents.
We are seeing the forces of reactionary backlash gathering steam again, in the form of conservative marches on Washington, raucous town hall protesters, and angry conservative talk radio and tv hosts. Even though candidate and now President Obama has made efforts to move beyond polarizing politics, he cannot seem to escape these forces. This time, however, the silent majority seems to support a more liberal consensus position, and the noisy, disruptive and violent forces mainly come from the right. One hopes that the extremism of the tea party protestors proves as counter-productive for their cause as the worst excesses of the civil rights and student protests of the 1960's were for theirs. Trying to keep these voices of hate and fear at bay will continue to be one of the most important challenges of his presidency.